(Bloomberg) -- The leader of the House Intelligence Committee is threatening to move quickly on a vote to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt of Congress if the Department of Justice doesn’t turn over material related to the Russia investigation.
Chairman Devin Nunes said it doesn’t matter that Sessions recused himself from decisions regarding Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election; he’s the head of the Justice Department, so he would be the initial target of a contempt resolution.
Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Tuesday that he hasn’t spoken with Nunes about the issue yet. “We expect the administration to comply” with congressional requests, Ryan said.
Nunes is putting House GOP leaders in a tough spot. Triggering a confrontation over Sessions could please President Donald Trump, who has strongly criticized his own Justice Department, but other Republicans worry that such a move could muddy the party’s campaign message for the congressional elections later this year.
Nunes, a California Republican, first floated a possible contempt resolution over the weekend and on Monday doubled down on his sense of urgency.
“We know they have a long history of stonewalling us, and we’re well aware of it, that’s why we need to move more quickly than usual,” Nunes said in a brief interview. “We’re not going to give them the opportunity to squirm around and put lies out and mislead and obfuscate like they’ve done in the past. Those days are over.”
The Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena last week to demand Justice documents related to the origins of the Russia investigation. The yearlong inquiry has been marred by partisan disagreement and political posturing from the beginning, and Nunes’s threats risk further escalating the institutional tension just months before midterm elections.
“The only way to enforce would be to move quickly on contempt,” Nunes said. “That’s why if we don’t get a resolution quickly that’s what we’re going to do.”
It hasn’t yet been decided whether it would be a criminal or civil contempt resolution, Nunes said, because the committee is still “trying to figure out how to move forward.”
Sessions said at a news conference in California, referring to Nunes, that the department “has written him a letter and responded as appropriate to him.”
“The request he’s made is one the intelligence community and the Department of Justice feels is not grantable,” Sessions said, noting that the documents at issue relate to an ongoing, active investigation.
A Republican-led House Oversight Committee in 2012 held then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for a botched law enforcement operation during the Obama administration. But it would be an extraordinary step for a GOP majority to back such a resolution for the top Justice Department official in a Republican administration.
Sessions has, however, often been out of favor with Trump since his recusal from investigating Russian election meddling was followed by the decision of his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel. Trump has lamented that many of his legal troubles sprang from this moment and has criticized Sessions in public and on Twitter.
Nunes said he would “definitely consult” Ryan before introducing a contempt resolution. So far, Ryan has stood behind the committee’s demands, even during a private meeting in which Rosenstein attempted to explain the department’s reservations about sharing full information about a continuing investigation with the Intelligence panel.
Eyeing the Midterms
Ryan’s strategy on this politically divisive investigation has been to privately encourage a resolution of such situations, according to a moderate Republican who asked not to be named when speaking about internal party dynamics.
While it might be popular in some deep-red districts to join with Trump in railing against the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt,” a vote to challenge the Justice Department would be extremely damaging to a Republican trying to hold onto a hotly contested seat, the lawmaker said.
Even though Ryan announced that he would retire at the end of the year, he’s still trying to create the best electoral environment for all of his members.
Nunes’s insistence that Congress could hold the Justice Department in contempt is part of the effort by the far-right to delegitimize Mueller’s investigation, the moderate GOP member said. This means there will be pressure on Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, Ryan’s heir apparent, to support conservatives in this strategy.
“If we are a government of the people that has representatives, then we have oversight over these entities and they are to comply with us,” Republican Representative Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, a member of the Intelligence panel, said Tuesday. “Their clearance is no different than ours.”
‘Have to See’
Peter King, a New York Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said he was aware of the subpoena but was waiting to hear more from Nunes on how a contempt resolution would play out.
“We’ll have to see,” King said. “Devin is going to have to explain it and say exactly why.”
Nunes said he’s confident that not only House leaders but also his Republican colleagues would support whatever it takes to get the material his committee is demanding. He said “100 percent” of Republicans would vote in favor of a resolution to hold Sessions in contempt of Congress.
“I think most Republicans know this is unacceptable behavior by the Justice Department,” Nunes said. “This is about the Congress, this is about the Congress’s oversight, so who would vote against that?”
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